Have you ever been in the midst of a dream and realized that you were, indeed, dreaming? Even weirder, have you found that you could control the dream as it was occurring?
This isn’t some weird fluke — it is a phenomenon called lucid dreaming. About half of us have experienced a lucid dream at one point or another, and twenty percent have them on a monthly basis. “We still don’t know that much about it, but we know it’s been going on since the dawn of time,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and author of “The Power of When”).
Like most dreams, lucid dreaming typically occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. But there are some key differences in our brains than when we are having a regular dream. Lucid dreamers have significantly higher brain wave frequencies than non-lucid dreamers, according to a 2015 study published in Sleep Medicine Reviews. They also have increased activity in their brain’s prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is usually inactive when you are asleep. “This is the part of your brain that’s involved in conscious awareness and sense of self, as well as language and memory,” explains Breus. This helps explain why people realize they are dreaming in the midst of their slumber.
Lucid dreaming allows you to explore fantasies in a safe way.
It is not clear why some of us experience lucid dreams, while others don’t. “There’s some research to suggest that people who have strong imaginations and are very creative are more prone to lucid dreaming,” points out Breus. Another 2010 study published in the medical journal Dreaming found that people who are easily able to go back and forth between different tasks are more likely to have lucid dreams. People who experience frequent nightmares are also more prone to lucid dreams, as well. Lucid dreaming is also associated with narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes you to fall asleep during your normal daily activities. This may be because people with narcolepsy tend to enter the REM stage of sleep very quickly.
The Benefits of Lucid Dreaming
Although some people might be unnerved at the idea of suddenly finding themselves in their dream, there may be some clear psychological benefits to it. “Dreams have long been thought to be vehicles for emotional processing, problem solving, idea exploring and creativity,” explains Breus. One of the most powerful ways they can be used is to help you deal with phobias or trauma, and improve your mood and close relationships. “When you experience a lucid dream, you are able to push back against an upsetting dream narrative — essentially re-scripting it to a create a more positive and empowering outcome,” he adds.
Lucid dreaming may also have spiritual benefits as well because it allows you to be in the present moment, notice your surroundings and take in everything around you without being sidetracked. This not only brings about self-awareness and self-reflection, but even may inspire creativity. It also allows you to experience things that may be impossible or just taboo for you to do. “The two most common lucid dreaming experiences are flying, which is physically impossible, and having sex with someone other than your partner, which emotionally you’re not supposed to do,” explains Breus. Lucid dreaming allows you to explore these fantasies in a safe way.
There has been some research showing similarities between lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis (a condition that occurs when you wake from sleep and can’t move or speak for a few seconds). This is probably because both are related to transitions in and out of REM sleep, notes Breus. But there is no evidence that lucid dreaming itself is linked to sleep paralysis, he reassures. In fact, while sleep paralysis itself was connected to poorer sleep and more day to day stress, lucid dreamers reported better creativity, imagination and daydreaming.
For most people, there is no danger to lucid dreaming. “Once you realize that you are dreaming and do a reality check to confirm it, you generally gain a new level of mental and emotional freedom since you often remember that your physical body is safely asleep in bed,” explains Craig Sim Webb, Ph.D., executive director of the non-profit DREAMS Foundation in Montreal. “The experience is generally exciting and inspiring, but can also sometimes be very intense and surprisingly believable, so it can help to take things step by step when facing fears until you get used to the process, so as not to frighten yourself right out of the experience. As you explore inner realms, it is also wise to keep grounded (i.e. eat and sleep sufficiently) and stay socially connected in your physical life to avoid potential imbalances.” But people with serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia shouldn’t try to induce it, because they may be unable to distinguish their dreams from real-life events, says Breus.
How to Encourage Lucid Dreaming
If you have never experienced a lucid dream — or have, and want to have them more frequently — there are some tips and techniques to try, including:
Take frequent reality checks. All this involves is frequently checking in with your surroundings while you are awake during the day. “As you observe your environment, ask yourself, ‘Am I awake, or am I dreaming?’” advises Breus. This makes it more likely that your mind will ask this when you are actually dreaming.
Wake back to bed (WBTB). Using this technique, you sleeps for 5-6 hours, then deliberately wake up for a short period of time before dozing off again. “The idea here is to send yourself immediately into REM sleep, which tends to occur more as the night progresses,” explains Breus.
Mnemonic induction of lucid dream (MILD). Otherwise known as visualization, this is one of the most researched, and most effective, lucid dream techniques. Before bed, practice dream recall, and then when you awaken at any time get up and recall as much of your dream as you can. Before you go back to sleep, visualize yourself returning to your dream and plan a specific activity to do within it. Focus on this until you fall back asleep. A 2017 study published in the journal Dreaming found that using all three of these techniques together — reality checks, WBTB, and MILD — stimulated lucid dreaming.
Master dream recall. The main barrier to realizing that you are dreaming is that your dreaming and waking memory aren’t connected as much as they could be with some intention, practice and focus. “You may already be having lucid dreams and just don’t remember them,” says Webb. As you go to bed, ask yourself to remember your dreams when you awaken. When you get up, gather as many images, feelings or impressions as you can, then write them down in a notebook. As you start remembering dreams more, you will become more familiar with your personal dream content, which in turn will allow your waking reasoning and reflective capabilities to be more present in your dreams, adds Webb. Another tip: snack on whole grain cereal with milk before bed. These foods are both rich in vitamin B6, which appears to strengthen dream recall, according to an Australian study published last year in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills.
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